Reflective notes on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy by Ann Lopez

Introduction

I chose to reflect on Ann Lopez’s presentation theme “Combating inequities and deficit discourses-building diverse, inclusive schools”. Themes and concepts, which were presented during Lopez’s presentation and the selected readings, were well connected with the previous two presentations, by Sherene Razack How we get drawn into the project of the Empire, and Rinaldo Walcott’s thesis on Thinking Coloniality. Thus, I try to bring to the center the notions of culture, culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, and multiculturalism in my reflection and link these with the questions of race, coloniality, social class and hegemony.

Description of the presentation and the readings

I want to provide short description on the presentation as well as key ideas that I pulled out from the suggested readings. Lopez’s situating herself within the theoretical and methodological frameworks is drawn from her own lived experiences as a Jamaican rural black female immigrant in Canada. For Ann, formal education, despite its racist and sexist structures and processes, seemed to provide an excellent opportunity to master it and use it as a means of upward social mobility. She also used education as a strategy to ‘return back’ to it with the purpose of contributing to the ‘wave’ of dismantling its inherent exclusionary and discriminatory philosophies, structures and processes.

According to Lopez, it is important to subject the very notion of multicultural education into an extensive critique, as it does not openly acknowledge racism, power, and colonialism in the Canadian context. She notes that Canadian education system should be described as a ‘comfort equity’ or ‘lamented equity’ context, rather than locating it within a critical equity framework and practice. In such context of comfortable denial, what Lopez argues that politics of schooling is not examined and problematized, rather it is considered to be a neutral and bias-free process and structure. As an insider to the Canadian educational system, Lopez argues for implementing anti-racist and critical educational philosophy in the preparation of teachers, developing curriculum, and challenging educational policies and bringing social change through education and research. To be specific, due to her own lived experiences of racism, colonization and migration, Lopez makes a strong justification for the use of students’ lived experiences as a pedagogical tool in the education system that claims to be based on the principles of multiculturalism.

All three readings develop discussions around the issues of teacher education that is based on the principles of teaching for social justice and critical multicultural education (Flores, 2007; Lopez, 2011; Sleeter, 2011). Flores (2007) shares an example of contradictions within beginning teachers’ situated learning and transformative practices that apply critical multicultural teacher preparation framework in urban school situations. Flores cites Peter Elbow (1986) to highlight the need to ‘…embracing contradictions to deepen understanding..” “…to see alternative view…” “…[to] deepen our own perspectives”. What Flores argues here is the continued problematics of university and schools as overlapping as well as conflicting communities of practice, which influence beginning teachers’ transformative practices negatively or positively.

Sleeter’s article is undoubtfully critical about simplistic conceptions of culturally responsive pedagogy. She highlights the need for critical understanding of ‘culture’ that goes beyond trivializing and essentializing this notion, thus the pedagogical framework, and calls for extending it from cultural to political analysis. In other words, she strengthens the argument about education for critical multiculturalism, which is based on the fundamental principles of critical race theory and critical pedagogy. Moreover, the impact of critical culturally responsive pedagogy on student achievement should be researched to strengthen the position of this framework, and also critically examine its effects on those students, whose lives are at stake. Culturally responsive pedagogy is not what Lopez noted, ‘comfort equity’-oriented pedagogy or education, but it is a critical and political activity, and it invites teachers to carry out social action for equity and justice in the larger society.

Broadening theoretical base of culturally responsive pedagogy

There are several instances and ideas that I want to point out for future critique when multiculturalism, and culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy are brought into discussion. With the exception of Sleeter (2011), there is an underlying assumption that culture itself is a fixed notion and unproblematic. The very unproblematized attitude toward what culture means/is further complicates its practical application in state policy making, and specifically in educational contexts. Sleeter alludes, but does not go deeper, about the problems of essentializing culture as ‘a fairly fixed and homogenous conception…” equating culture with ethnicity, language and race. She mentions about the relationship between social class and race that produce certain type of culture, however, does not extend her argument further.

I remember what Sherene Razack highlighted in her presentation how race and racism is expressed in culture. Difference of culture, according to Razack, hierarchicalizes people. Moreover, culture talk mostly reproduces racism than transforms this dominant discourse. As for example, Walcott mentioned about how hip-hop Black youth culture as one of the kinds of vernacular cultures, clearly shows how everyday practices makes obvious the limits of progressive nation-state and capitalist projects. He also traces back the history and makes the link between state multiculturalism and the project of neo-colonialism. Both Razack and Walcott have so much to offer to critical multicultural education, and would definitely problematize the notions of culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy. Thus, the arguments within critical multicultural education should draw such ideas from critical race, feminism, diaspora studies, and anti-colonial theories, which shakes the foundation of hegemonic, repressive and ‘disguised’ conceptions of culture and multiculturalism within existing practices and structures.

I want to note here another aspect in such discussion that did not come up as striking or problematic. I regard the notion of culture as conundrum itself, because it assumes the collective dimension, and excludes individual within it. Thus, culture in a way excludes individual differences and imposes a unified collective cultural thinking upon the individual. If we consider individual difference in the multicultural discourse, then will it still be considered as ‘culture’ in a multicultural education discourse context? I do not know myself how far I can extend such idea, and whether it is partly reflective of neoliberalist project, which centers individualism in its argument.

Three suggested articles for Lopez’s presentation do not necessarily share a common vocabulary for critical literacy or education. I noted that culturally ‘responsive’ and ‘relevant’ pedagogy seem to be taken synonymously in Sleeter (2011) and Lopez (2011), however, both seem to claim that this pedagogical framework is based on the philosophy of critical theory. Should these terms be used interchangeably? Are there any distinctions between them? Does ‘relevance’ assumes ‘responsiveness’? Do both share the same philosophical underpinnings? Does commonality in vocabulary and principles make a difference in its practice? These questions would generate some interesting turns in thinking.

It is important to note here that neither presentation nor readings for this session talked about how diverse perspectives, views and practices, when brought into classroom pedagogical context, could and will result in contradictions, conflicts and controversial positions among teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Students from diverse backgrounds, histories and lived experiences will bring multiple perspectives and at times, these perspectives may result in the heated conflicts, for which teachers should be prepared to deal with. In my experience of a teacher educator, my colleagues and I encountered such situations when teachers were not well prepared to handle such conflicts in the classrooms, and were not willing to use such incidents as potentially strong pedagogical tools. This seemed to happen because of expectations of teachers a prescriptive remedial procedure from their teacher education programs and their teacher educators. Moreover, as educators, we seem to overlook early socialization of teachers into dominant thinking. Teachers’ own habitus may inhibit to analyze their own problematic perceptions and views on certain topics. I recall here what my friend’s son shared about his teacher making a strong claim on Afghan men’s brutality towards their wives. This student rebelled against such a generalized perspective on Afghan culture, and felt that his classmates, who were mostly from upper middle class white backgrounds, believed in the authoritative conclusion of a teacher. Such incidents raise critical questions for teacher education.

Despite its calls for critical-political education, Sleeter’s culturally responsive education does not seem to provide strategies for teachers how to apply such thinking in classroom and school contexts, whereas Flores (2007) and Lopez are able to give practical know-how for practicing teachers by providing research-based examples. Or should pedagogical creativity of teachers be encouraged and some kind of a general guideline of the philosophical underpinning be shared for multiple interpretations in practice?

Conclusion: What is it there for Kyrgyzstan?

In many regards, the ideas and experiences of critical cultural literacy and culturally responsive pedagogy are highly required points for discussion, practice, and critique for educational contexts in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, such discussions are absent. Since its independence in 1991, the nation-state building project openly excludes multiculturalism in its processes and structures. Despite multiethnic, multi-faith/belief, and multi-lingual backgrounds of the population, and the histories that were affected by the different colonizing and modernizing projects of the Russian empire, then the modernist Soviet state, both elevated Russian cultural superiority intentionally, the current education system favors one ethnic group, and conveniently, also forcefully, ignores histories and experiences of all people in this nationalist project. 20 years of implementation of such nationalistic ideology, which excludes, and represses any other interpretation and thinking, resulted in two bloody ethnic conflicts in the south in 1990 and 2010, and a steady migration of minority groups to other countries. Scholars through their works also contribute to, and at times, provide a strong basis for such exclusion, discrimination, and domination. Two conflicting state policies, one ‘Kyrgyzstan is our common home’ and ‘Kyrgyz as a founding nation of the state’ create further difficulties for educators, who are forced to follow national curriculum, which itself promotes nationalism, but also expect them to ‘magically’ incorporate multiculturalism in the education of younger generation. The lack of political will on multicultural education, and resistance by the nationalists, create ever-disturbing context for education of young generation.

Then, such messy context grows in complexity, as on one hand, when history is revised, and post-coloniality is applied in the analysis of pre-Soviet and Soviet historical events and interpretations, but interpretation and re-writing of it becomes nationalistic and exclusionary on the other hand. Such discourse does not openly acknowledge the effects of neo-colonialism of the West, especially of global capitalism, and everything what is coming from the West to Kyrgyzstan, is considered unproblematic and ‘positive’ to the economic growth of this small landlocked country. For instance, state-promoted multiculturalism and two-language policy of Canada is considered as a role model for young Kyrgyz state to follow, but there is a lack of debate and discussion around the issues of such replication in Kyrgyz context. Or there seems a lack of information about Canadian multiculturalism’s problematics too.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that Lopez’s theme for discussion introduces to the practical issues of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, raises questions about its philosophical foundations, and calls for continued critical political activity among educators, researchers and members of the society. Kyrgyz educators and scholars should be encouraged to take up the issue of multiculturalism seriously, but be conscious of its limitation and problematics, and strive for creating a socially just society through education of younger generation as well as society at large. Such mission is not impossible, but it requires commitment, ability to critique own beliefs and assumptions, subject their practices into examination, and change and try to contribute to social transformation.

References

Flores, M. (2007) Navigating contradictory communities of practice in learning to teach for social justice. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 38 (4); pp. 380-402

Lopez, A. (2011) Culturally relevant pedagogy and critical literacy in diverse English classrooms. English Teaching Practice and Critique,10 (4); pp. 75-93

Sleeter, C. (2011) An agenda to strengthen culturally responsive pedagogy.  English Teaching Practice and Critique, 10 (2); pp. 7-23

About rakhatzholdoshalieva

I am a Doctor of Education (EdD) candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.
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